"Big Apple" prostitution etymology, pt. 4

Gerald Cohen gcohen at UMR.EDU
Sat Jun 2 15:11:42 UTC 2001

    Here is my fourth and final installment about the
prostitution-etymology of "The Big Apple," as that etymology appears
in http://salwen.com/apple.html

      Salwen's theorizing (presented as hard fact accepted by serious
historians) includes his view that the semantic connection of "apple"
and "prostitute"/"brothel" was so firm in American speech by the
second half of the 19th century that a political denunciation of NYC
as a rotten apple was generally grasped as containing a (sexual)
double-entendre: "The double-entendre would have been well understood
by voters of the time."

      Fast-forward to 1907, when (according to salwen) "The term 'Big
Apple' or 'The Apple' had already passed into general use as a
sobriquet for New York City..."  But this sobriquet as we know it
contains no sexual connotations, not even a hint of "prostitute" or
"brothel." How was the sexual connotation so completely lost?

      Salwen answers: "Interestingly, the phrase had also become pretty
well 'sanitized' in the process [of becoming NYC's generally-used
sobriquet by 1907], thanks to a vigorous campaign mounted just after
the turn of the
century by the Apple Marketing Board, a trade group based in upstate
Cortland, New York.
      "Alarmed by sharply declining sales, the Association
launched what some believe to be the earliest example of what would
now be called a 'product positioning campaign.'
      "By devising and energetically promoting such slogans as
'An apple a day keeps the Doctor away' and "as American as apple
pie!" the A.M.B. was able to successfully 'rehabilitate' the apple as
a popular comestible, free of unsavory associations."
      Now, whatever the Apple Marketing Board (assuming it existed)
might or might not have done, it could not have removed the unsavory
associations ("prostitute, brothel") of the term "apple," because
there were no such associations to remove. There is no evidence at
all that American speech of the 19th/early 20th centuries had these
associations beyond a possibly very limited use. The explanation for
the rehabilitation being so complete is that there was nothing to
rehabilitate in the first place.

    Salwen concludes his treatment with a flourish: "It is believed
that the group [Apple Marketing Board] also distributed apples to the
poor for sale on the city's streets during the Great Depression (1930
38). No convincing
documentary evidence has been produced to support this, however."

    Implication of the last sentence: convincing documentation exists
for all the rest of salwen's etymological treatment. In fact, though,
his etymological treatment is not documented and collapses upon
examination. At best it seems to be a flight of fancy, sprinkled with
a few scholarly-sounding tidbits, and  very possibly it's an outright

---Gerald Cohen

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